Laws, Attention, and the Question of Violence: A Roundtable on Thoreau

Justice

In times as uncertain as ours, these reflections serve as welcome reminders of the importance of political resistance, critique, and the near-militant self-awareness that characterizes Thoreau’s work.

We are pleased to present the following roundtable on the work of Henry David Thoreau. The contributors for this symposium will offer responses to one another’s work, while addressing themes of violence and nonviolence, attention, and the unresolved question of religion and spirituality in Thoreau’s writing.

Professor Rebecca Ruth Gould of the University of Binghamton offers the first contribution in this series, “Thoreau, Violence, Conscience.” Here, Professor Gould thinks through the ways in which Thoreau could be read as “at once a theorist of violence and nonviolence…so as to better probe their intersections.”

Professor Caleb Smith of Yale University offers the second contribution, “That Terrible Thoreau,” considering how Thoreau’s reflections “on the problem of attention” could leverage a critique of modern capitalist economy.

Doctor Alda Balthrop-Lewis of Australian Catholic University provides our third contribution for this symposium, “Thoreau’s Asceticism as Obedience to a Higher Law.” In it, she challenges “secular” readings of Thoreau, arguing that “the category of religion and the study of theology are central to understanding Thoreau and his practice – of both asceticism and politics.”

Our final contributor, Professor Peter Coviello of the University of Illinois at Chicago, rounds off the conversation in his piece, “Violence and Thinking About Violence.” He considers the ways in which Thoreau can help us illuminate the “state-claimed monopoly on violence that undergirds political economy” and make space for new modes of dissent.

In times as uncertain as ours, these reflections serve as welcome reminders of the importance of political resistance, critique, and the near-militant self-awareness that characterizes Thoreau’s work. We hope you enjoy.

Symposium Essays

Rebecca Ruth Gould

Thoreau, Violence, Conscience

When placed in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., civil disobedience is premised on nonviolent resistance. But Thoreau understood that, under certain conditions, the protestor’s nonviolent resistance may lead to violence by the state.

Caleb Smith

That Terrible Thoreau

Thoreau’s generative ambivalence, the reason we keep returning to him, comes from a specific move he makes, over and over again. Thoreau does something very particular for us. He recasts problems of political economy as ethical questions about the conduct of life.

Alda Balthrop-Lewis

Thoreau’s Asceticism as Obedience to a Higher Law

Thoreau’s asceticism was always also related to his hope for just economy – a way of life beyond slavery or exploitative capitalism. I am thus invested in thinking about Thoreau’s religion – his ascetic practice in the woods and the theological commitments that drove it – as deeply tied to his politics.

Peter Coviello

Violence and Thinking About Violence

Thoreau is a figure who all at once embodies, hyperbolizes, and in that hyperbolization lays excruciatingly bare the contradictions of what Michael Warner calls “liberal culture,” and that for our part we might name secular capitalist modernity.